Harry didn't know who that was -- maybe Professor Sinistra? -- because he was running too fast. He didn't care, anyway. He kept running through the Hogwarts corridors, scattering a group of Ravenclaw fourth years and ignoring the comments from the paintings ("In my day students only ran that fast if they were on fire or late for Transfiguration with old Josh -- remember him? Ah, those were the days...").
He was too quick for Peeves. The poltergeist, hearing the sounds of a student sprinting through the castle, thought he was ready with a water balloon. He raised it in one spectral hand... aimed... and --
Harry didn't notice that he'd run past Peeves so fast the malicious phantasm was spun like a top. Harry didn't even stop when Peeves -- out of control -- wrapped himself up in a tapestry. (The complaints of the maiden tending the unicorns in the tapestry never reached Harry's ears, although she would later lodge a complaint with the Bloody Baron who would in turn stuff Peeves into a jug of chow-chow for the better part of a week. None of the other inhabitants would miss Peeves and it would only be when he was dished up on cold beef during lunch in the Great Hall that he would be released.)
By the time he collapsed through the entrance to Gryffindor dormitory Harry could barely breathe. He wrestled his parka off before he could begin to broil. "He- huh... Her..."
"Harry! What's happened? Has someone hexed you?"
Ron, who had been sitting over by the empty fireplace playing Seamus at chess (Seamus was losing badly) ran over to grab his friend's arm.
Harry was bent double trying to get his breath back. He pushed Ron's arm away when Ron tried to wave a wand at him. "No, I'm fine. I'm not -- Hey! I'm not hexed!" he added quickly.
Seamus had his wand out and was saying: "Sure, but I'm good at fixing hexes these days, Harry... Let's see what it is, then..."
"Leave him alone!" Ron yelled, alarmed. "You'll blow him up!"
"Only trying to help," Seamus said huffily.
"Don't see how you exploding Harry is going to help anyone," Ron grumbled as he led Harry over one of the red-and-gold sofas. "Can I get you a drink, Harry?"
Harry shook his head. "Thanks," he said, finally thinking that he might one day be able to breathe comfortably without extra oxygen. With a bit of luck he hadn't ruptured a lung. "But I need to be quick. I need my dad's old cloak..."
"I'll get it. You look done in."
Harry managed to look grateful. "Ta, Ron. Where's Hermione?"
Ron's face twisted into a sour expression that would have done Snape proud. "Doing her extra credit assignment."
"Thought she might be. Do me a favour?"
"Can you bring the cloak down to meet me?"
Ron sighed. "Yeah. Okay."
"Thanks. You're a true friend."
Ron punched him lightly in the shoulder. "Go carefully. You're interrupting study-time, and you know how Hermione gets about that..."
Harry grinned back at his red-headed friend, glad Ron was Ron. "I know. I'll get you the new Fillibuster's Firecrackers next time we go to Hogsmeade."
And he was off again with his rubbery knees and his lungs threatening to burst into flames. Luckily it was all downhill from here.
Hermione had been wanting to do some extra work to help lift her grades from -- as far as Harry could tell -- being merely high to up into the stratosphere. She was working with Neville Longbottom (who needed the extra work to raise his grade to a pass) on a special project that the two were keeping utterly secret. Although Harry knew Hermione could keep a secret with the best of them, he was surprised by Neville. The other boy had, only this year, shown a surprising maturity. It was only Neville's new-found ability to apply a business-like attitude to things that had previously terrified him stupid, Harry suspected, that stopped Ron from throwing a wobbly over the amount of time his girlfriend was spending with Neville. Ron had grown up, too, if he no longer needed to feel jealous over Hermione spending time with another guy other than Harry.
Harry had tried half-heartedly to get the secret out of Hermione, but she had proven unusually solemn and shaken her head, disappointed with Harry's curiosity. "Honestly, Harry, it's something important for Neville and the kind of research we're doing has ethical boundaries which mean we have to keep quiet about what we're working on."
Harry had given up at that point. Arguing with Hermione about ethics was high on Harry's list of Things Not To Do.
He could have weaselled it out of Neville, of course, but apart from the way it would have given Harry a nasty case of guilt Harry still felt a little uneasy around Neville after what he had learned about Neville's parents. They'd stopped Snape from getting the vital piece of information through that might have saved James and Lily Potter. Even though they hadn't been directly involved in the murders of Harry's own parents he still knew that, somewhere in the darkest corner of his mind, he felt that their torture and insanity were justified. Last summer he'd said that he could face Neville without any anger. And he wasn't angry at Neville, not really. But he still felt uncomfortable knowing that he wasn't truly sad over Neville's parents being in St Mungo's. And there was always that dark thought that surfaced at the most unlikely times that would whisper: At least Neville's parents are alive.
And he would feel jealous.
That was something that really bothered him. Bothered him so much, in fact, that Harry was glad for the way the muscles of his legs were threatening to go into revolt and his glasses were fogging up from the sweat pouring off him and the way he was about to --
"Ouch." He sat up and found his glasses in the wreckage of one of the suits of armour. Filch was going to have a fit when he was the devastation Harry was making simply by travelling through the castle.
To hell with Filch. There were bigger, badder and nastier things out there than the caretaker and his motley moggy.
Harry wiped blood from a cut on his hand where the suit's broadsword had narrowly avoided cutting off his fingers and aimed himself at a door set halfway along the corridor.
"Oi!" came a shout from behind him. "Potter, yer little horror! I've caught yer at yer mischief this time!"
Blast. It was Filch. Never mind, Harry was almost at the door. He burst through it and tripped.
And fell again.
Harry lay sprawled on his stomach and thought how nice and cool the stone floor was. It was so much easier to breathe lying down, too.
A pair of black boots entered his vision.
A silken voice said, "Well. It would seem that young Mr Potter has finally learned to appreciate my classes. While I was expecting slightly less enthusiasm, this display is in character of someone who has finally had an epiphany and wishes to throw himself into the most demanding of the arts. I hope all of you appreciate Mr Potter's ability to share the profound discovery of his heart. You may take notes on the excellent way he has prostrated himself before a Master of the Craft."
Oh yes. If Filch ever wanted to know what was bigger, badder and nastier than him and Mrs Norris combined Harry would happily direct him towards Severus Snape.
Harry sat up, wheezing. And frowned. Snape was offering him a hand. Harry didn't bother to stop and analyse what it might cost him later in Gryffindor credibility. He just took it and let the Potions master pull him up onto his feet.
Harry managed to peer around the room. There was Hermione working with Neville. A simmering cauldron was to their right and they had had their heads together over a textbook when Harry had come barging in. Hermione was looking at him now with her eyebrows together, anxiety written large on her face. Neville looked astonished. This could have been either the way Harry had appeared suited up in full dragonhide or by how Snape had helped a Potter up.
Snape was looking Harry up and down. Harry saw the moment Snape guessed. His black eyes flashed with fury. "Now what have you done, Potter?" he hissed.
Harry was used to weathering the storms of Snape's anger, but this one made him quake. He'd only seen Snape this angry once before, when he'd accused Harry and Draco Malfoy of endangering his wife. "Well?"
Filch stumbled into the Potions laboratory. "Professor..." he began.
Snape lifted one hand to silence Filch. The other was gripping Harry's shoulder so tight that Harry winced. "Answer me, Potter. What have you done?"
Harry said, "I think you know where I went. You probably know why, too." He cast a significant look at the other students in the room. Apart from Hermione and Neville, there were pairs of sixth-year Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs as well as Millicent Bulstrode and Blaise Zabini, two of the few Slytherins who had remained at Hogwarts instead of transferring to Durmstrang last year. This, then, was the extra-credit Potions class for those sixth-year students who wanted to do personal research. And all of the students virtually had their ears on stalks trying to find out what was going on.
Snape understood even if his harsh glare didn't relent. "Get out. All of you. Leave your cauldrons and take your books."
There was a quiet rustling as the students evacuated before Snape could go ballistic. Even Filch seemed to have some idea of how angry the professor was -- he had left, too, him and Mrs Norris.
"Well?" Snape's voice was at its softest and most deadly. "Out with it, boy."
"The Ministry sent a team of dragon handlers to Antarctica. They took me, too -- I was the bait."
Snape's pale, thin lips went even thinner and paler at that, but he didn't say anything.
Harry continued. "They were looking for an Ice Dragon. I don't -- didn't know anything about it. But then it found me and --" He swallowed. "And then they caught it. They said it was dangerous."
"And how," Snape purred, "do you know it isn't?"
Harry glared back at him. "I heard it. Like pictures in my mind. It wasn't vicious -- they said it was but it isn't. It just wanted to meet me. It was... I saw it flying and it was beautiful. It was... it was..."
Snape heard what Harry couldn't say. "And now? What is it now?" He had both hands on Harry's shoulders now, clenched so hard Harry would have bruises on his bruises.
Harry bit his lip and wished people would stop grabbing his shoulders. "Now they've broken its wing. Their spells didn't hold it so someone, he... he let a Bludger go..."
Snape winced and his face was ashen.
"Professor, you have to help it!"
"And why should I help it?" Snape breathed, looking away as if the shelves of dried herbs off to the right fascinated him.
But Harry had seen the speculative look in his eyes and knew that Snape was already planning out strategies. "Because it knows you," he said, and was rewarded by a look of pure astonishment.
"I told it I was going for help," Harry said doggedly, "and it showed me a picture of you in its mind."
Snape let go of him abruptly and whirled away. With a muttered oath he extinguished the fires under the cauldrons and snapped out cooling charms. "All of these potions ruined, of course," he said sourly. He bent his head a little so that Harry couldn't see his expression. "All right, Potter. I hope you know exactly where you left from. Antarctica is a big place."
Harry held up the Portkey. "This got me here. Hermione taught me a reverse-charm so that I can track it backwards."
"Ah. The inestimable Miss Granger. Remind me to thank her if I live through this."
Snape strode over to a desk and pulled out one of the drawers so that the drawer fell onto the ground and scattered paper and quills. As Snape reached into the empty space and felt around right at the back, he muttered, "The Ministry is occasionally right. The Ice Dragon is dangerous. Helping it could get me killed."
Us killed, thought Harry. "But it was friendly..."
"I hope it will be friendlier than it was to Lucius Malfoy."
Snape grunted in concentration as he groped for whatever it was he was looking for. "Lucius wasn't eaten by an Antipodean Opaleye. He was eaten by your new best friend. Completely --"
"Ouch!" Snape pulled his hand out from the desk and shook off a mousetrap. "Damn things," he grumbled. "Forgot I left that there." Undeterred, he put his hand back in. "Here we go," he muttered with satisfaction.
Harry tried to see what he held in his hand, but Snape's long yellowed fingers weren't giving away any secrets. He broke into a run to keep up with Snape's long strides as Snape stalked out of the classroom.
"Give me the Portkey."
Harry handed it over and tried to look over Snape's shoulder as they hurried along. But when Harry tripped on the billowing cloak and Snape snarled at him wordlessly he thought it wiser to drop back. That was a bonus when Ron came sprinting down the stairs and barrelled into Snape.
Snape caught his balance on a wall sconce. He said a word that certainly wasn't on the Charms syllabus but made Ron's eyes go wide.
"S-s-sorry, sir," he stuttered. "Um... Harry...?"
Harry held out his hand and Ron, after a moment's hesitation while he eyed an increasingly-impatient Snape, held out the Invisibility Cloak.
Snape intercepted it with a smooth, "I'll take that," to the mutual (but unvoiced) consternation of the two Gryffindors. Before they could protest he was taking the stairs up from the dungeons three at a time.
Ron caught Harry's eye. Harry replied with a head-shake and gave Ron a grateful slap on the shoulder as he hurried after Snape.
As they strode down the steps outside the castle Snape snapped without looking back, "Where do you think you're going, Potter?"
"Antarctica," Harry replied.
"I think not," Snape hissed, still not looking at Harry. Harry wondered just how angry the man was. "You'll stay here and be a good little Gryffindor and not get into trouble. For a change."
Pretty angry, yup. "No."
Snape whirled so fast Harry nearly cannoned into him. "What did you say, Potter?"
Harry steeled himself. "I said ‘no.' I'm going to Antarctica."
"Oh? Is that what you think?"
"That's what's going to happen. It's my cloak," he said, knowing it was a bloody stupid thing as he did so, "and..." He faltered at the look of contempt he got back.
"Haven't you learned to share your toys and play nicely with the other children yet?"
"You never did," Harry retorted, finally losing his last thread of patience. "But it's not just that. I'm a parseltongue."
"I hardly see how that's going to help. There are no snakes in Antarctica."
"Then how come I could speak to the dragon and no-one else could?" Harry was trying not to shout but it was a losing battle. "How the hell do you think you're going to talk to it?"
By the way Snape drew himself up Harry knew he'd overstepped the mark. Again.
"I don't need to speak to it. And," he added, raking Harry with a glare, "I don't need to waste any more time talking to you. Get back to your dormitory, Mr Potter, and I'll see you later about arranging detention for your cheek."
He turned on his heel and hurried off.
Harry stood there for a moment, steaming in the watery November sun, quite prepared to let Snape dig his own grave.
Then he broke into a run.
He caught up with Snape just as the Potions master stepped through the gates. In the shadow of the winged boars Snape hissed the syllables of the Portkey-reversal spell.
The shadows seemed to darken for a second and Snape disappeared.
Not quite quick enough. Harry managed to grab a fold of Snape's robes as the Potions master uttered the spell. He, too, vanished.
And then all that was left were the lengthening shadows.
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